Did Meat Make Us Human?

A new book argues that ancient people had surprisingly diverse diets—and modern people should follow in their footsteps.

Stock image of meat skewered over a fire.
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Conversations about eating meat, when conducted between well-meaning liberals who are still carnivores, are at an impasse. We all know industrially farmed meat is bad for the climate, bad for the local environment in the places where it’s produced—not to mention particularly bad for the animals in question. But then again, maybe it’s OK to eat only locally or humanely produced meat; then again, meat is an integral part of the fashionable keto, paleo, Atkins, and Whole 30–style diets; then again, we heard something, once, about how humans are adapted to eat meat; then again, we say to each other with a shrug, we simply find meat tasty. With meat-eating, as with airplane travel, our knowledge that we are doing something that we really need to quit doing bumps up against the fact that our world is still built the way it’s built.

This exhausting stalemate was the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent We Are The Weather, and his choice to focus on this question—why, when I know I should, can’t I leave meat behind?—made that book torturously navel gaze–y. In a review of Weather in Bookforum, Charlotte Shane wrote (ever so gently, and ever so savagely): “Like most men, [Foer] is unaccustomed to thinking of himself as an emotional eater.” Shane pinpointed something interesting about omnivores who want to go vegetarian but just can’t. I think of it like this: For all our knowledge about the topic, we fail to grasp that “meat-eater” is also an identity and a way of relating to the world. Of course, changing that identity is going to bring up feelings.

If climate-conscious people who aren’t yet vegetarian have trouble explaining why they can’t reduce their meat consumption, there are plenty of right-leaning meat-eaters out there who openly embrace the argument that animal flesh is some kind of super-authentic food—the food that “made us human.” Extreme examples of this kind of stance show how seamlessly this idea segues into a defense of meat-eating as an act of white, American, Western domination of the natural world. Think of Republican congressmen eating hamburgers at press conferences denouncing the Green New Deal, or neo-Nazi podcasters calling Impossible Burgers a Jewish plot meant to turn everywhere into a “Second World country,” with “Third Worlders” “lifted up” and white Americans “pushed down”—everyone everywhere “eating soy burgers and riding around in little putt-putt cars.”

Last month, some enterprising grifter packaged Mikhaila Peterson’s public commentary on her all-meat “lion diet” into a book and started selling it on Amazon, complete with a meme-level Photoshopped cover featuring Peterson and her famous dad, Jordan. The younger Peterson said on Twitter that this particular book wasn’t her work, but the ideas in it—Peterson claims that eating only meat and salt cured her, and then her father, of myriad physical- and mental-health issues—are all hers. The conversion to a “lion diet” is a tale of total elimination of the fripperies of post-Paleolithic culture—of things people farmed and refined, like apple cider, salad(!), and bread. It’s also a story (like so many of Jordan Peterson’s) about hailing the existence of biologically determined hierarchies and then choosing to thrive within them.

People who don’t believe that hierarchy is destiny should be careful when they repeat maybe-true, maybe-not-true things about the evolutionary rightness of meat-eating. A recent book by historian and social scientist Josh Berson, The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food, helped me see that the evidence for meat-eating’s “rightness” for humans is thin. This book is really a challenge to two statements of conventional wisdom: First, the proposition that hunting and eating meat—specifically, large animals that yield a lot of flesh—“made us human.” Second, the idea that meat is so fundamentally desirable, so attractive to humans everywhere, that the more money people in places like China and India come to have, the more meat they will want to eat. (Carnivory, in other words, is destiny.) Neither of these things, Berson writes, is really correct. His book argues that humans once were extremely versatile eaters—and there’s no reason they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, become versatile eaters again.

Arguments for the prevalence and importance of meat-eating at different times in human evolution are always going to be hampered by the extent and nature of available archaeological evidence. If you’re wondering what Neanderthals ate, for example, the evidence lies in stable nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen and faunal assemblages, which is another way of saying places where we have dug up a whole lot of old animal bones. The “Horse Butchery Site” in Schoningen, Germany, features thousands of sets of animal remains from the Middle Paleolithic. But Berson points out that while this dramatic site of slaughter feels like a compelling argument that most humans lived off large kills at that point in time, this is only one place and can’t represent the whole picture; smaller animals, for example, would be undercounted because their little bones would have decayed away. As for the isotope studies, Berson points out that they show Neanderthals also ate plenty of plants to get protein. Newer forms of evidence, coming from phytoliths found on teeth and tools, suggest that “in some times and places, Neanderthals kept a diet rich in fungi, pine nuts, and mosses, with practically no meat.” This is a vision of human ancestors who took what their environment provided them.

As for the idea—conventional wisdom for more than 100 years—that people who follow diets light in animal flesh will always want more meat as soon as they have enough money to buy it, Berson argues that this may not actually be true. Perhaps, he writes, the ingrained expectation that countries that are getting richer will need more cattle to eat leads to the production of more cows for those markets—and not vice versa. And perhaps people who live in recently colonized countries have, historically, eaten more raised meat not because they wanted it, but because that was what was available.

Australia is his best example of the latter idea. Berson makes a convincing argument that the advent of cattle made life far worse for indigenous people on that continent. Even though they, too, “got” to eat the beef that European colonizers produced, their general quality of life declined precipitously. Looking at a joint American-Australian 1948 study of the diets of Yolngu people in Arnhem Land, Australia, Berson reads the data to see how some foragers, less reliant on the distributions of beef and flour from colonial administrators, could provide for their nutritional needs in very few hours per week. Those who were living at feeding stations had “hens, goats, cattle, trucks, and firearms,” yet theirs “was a life of scraping by and hoarding rations for personal use. It was a life in which foragers’ ultimate fallback strategy, shifting camp, was denied them by design.” They would rather have access to the land, as they once did; this new life of beef-eating was a life, Berson writes, of “precarity.”

This is grim stuff. But at the core of it all, the message of the book is ultimately hopeful. “Arguments that it isn’t possible to live without meat—implicitly, because of the role that meat played in human evolution—dramatically misapprehend the relationship between biology and destiny,” Berson writes. In an interview, Berson said that his book’s counterargument—that we have actually demonstrated a huge capacity for dietary versatility in the course of our long survival—can be hard to sell because it “doesn’t speak to people’s desire for cognitive closure” in the way that a just-so story like “meat made us human” does. And yes, the idea that meat-eating is the highest form of human diet is so strong, it has the power to cure Mikhaila Peterson’s arthritis and kill 35 million cattle a year in the United States alone.

“I am convinced that if humanity survives to 2119,” Berson writes, “there is a chance that the society of that time will be one where consuming animals is uncommon, perhaps unheard of.” After all, we ate that way before, because we had to—and it’s becoming more and more clear that soon, we will have to once again. This shouldn’t be viewed as some kind of civilizationwide failure to celebrate our supremacy over the beasts of the field. I admit it—it is thrilling to imagine a band of Neanderthal athletes bringing down some fleet four-footed prey, then dragging it back to the tribe, to the celebration of the women. But I find it more inspiring to imagine all our human ancestors pounding acorns, foraging moss, stalking and trapping lizards, day after day. Nothing flashy; just moving forward, together.